The Other Reynolds: Frances, the Artist’s Sister.
We also get information about Reynold’s studio from his younger sister Frances (above in a portrait by Reynolds) who was herself a painter.1 From the first Frances showed talent in drawing which she compared to her brother’s first efforts, not without criticism of the latter. There are many conflicting views of Frances that emerge from the rumour mill of the eighteenth-century. The negative opinions stem from Northcote who declared to the critic William Hazlitt that Frances’s portraits were “an exact reproduction of all her brother’s defects.” She painted her friend Samuel Johnson, but he declared the portrait “not Johnson, but Johnson’s grimly ghost.” Though sibling rivalry has played a part in her anonymity, it should be borne in mind when assessing her art that there would have been social restrictions on Frances’s development since as Reynolds rose in society it would not have been appropriate for his sister to paint in a similar way without violating social codes.2 It seems that Frances was sentenced to painting reduced versions of her brother’s work whilst remaining in his house; she still harboured ambitions however as she painted large oils in secret in another part of the house. As her brother’s stock rose considerably, Frances’s hopes of painting diminished and she left his house and went to Windsor where she turned to writing her Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Taste, and of the Origin of Our Ideas of Beauty, which Dr Johnson encouraged her to publish in 1781. To be fair to Reynolds, he did provide handsomely for his sister in his will; and so she was able to move to a large house in London which housed all her pictures as well as some of her brother’s collection which went under the hammer in 1795. Though not an exceptional painter, Frances’s portrait of the actor and philanthropist, Hannah More, is a fine painting, and she certainly deserved more recognition than she got. She seems to have been disposed towards melancholy which is evident in some of her writings.
1 For an outline of Frances Reynolds, Wendorff, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 68-82. Also, Germaine Greer’s comments in The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Work, (Picador, 1979), 30-33.
2Greer is damning of Reynolds, and of bluestockings like Fanny Burney who attributed Frances’s failure as a painter to “her habitual perplexity of mind.” As Greer puts it. “There is, alas, nothing surprising in in the fact that a man who genuinely cared about painting and the nurturing of young, and female, talent, should have been unable to tolerate it in his own little sister, whom he sought to treat as a domestic…He was, in a word, frightened of her, the little sister who had laughed at his own childish attempts to draw,” The Obstacle Race, 32. According to Northcote’s Life of Reynolds (13), “his sisters had a turn for art” before their brother; and he states that Reynold’s “first essays were made in copying several little sketches done by them. “Frances found an ally in Hester Piozzi who in addition to being supportive of the sister, found the brother wanting in scholarship and knowledge. Leslie, Life (8) rejected the idea that Reynolds had been inspired by his sisters to draw; instead he believed that art was “in the blood” of the Reynolds family.